South Africa was a particularly inspiring place, especially now that I’ve seen more of its continent and have something to compare it to. It’s hard to compare, actually, since it (or at least Cape Town) seems nothing like the rest of Africa and a lot more like a seaside European city. One thing it does have in common with the rest of Africa, however, is its overabundance of animals.
At this point I don’t even remember how many different animals I saw, between the penguins at Boulders Beach just an hour south of Cape Town and the great white shark I had roughly ten inches from my face in Gansbaai, about two hours east of the Mother City. All this, and I didn’t even go on a game drive (for safari animals, see my post on the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania).
Here were a few of the highlights of the animals I encountered in Cape Town and the Western Cape of South Africa:
When Chris came out we rented a car and did a self-drive tour, meaning a company booked our car and hotels and we did the driving and chose what we wanted to see. It was the absolute perfect way to explore the Western Cape, since we were at the wheel (literally and figuratively) and didn’t have to follow someone else’s schedule or hide our faces in tourist shame while getting on and off a tourist bus. Cheryl at Selftours, the company we booked through, did a great job, always replying immediately to our requests, answering our questions and even extending our car rental by an extra few days when we realized our six days wasn’t enough. We started out staying at the Ambassador Hotel, with our own sixth-floor balcony overlooking the ocean. On our first full day there we jumped in the car and headed south towards Cape Point, with a stop at Boulders Beach so that I could fill a penguin void in place since leaving Antarctica six weeks prior.
On our first day setting out from the city we drove about two hours east to Gansbaai, where we thought it would be a great idea to jump in icy, great white shark-infested waters while someone tosses fish remains and seal heads into the water. Of course, we were in a cage. And somehow it never seemed all that dangerous – maybe because I had paid attention during the safety briefing when our guide mentioned that no one had ever been hurt doing this (but that if we made one dumb move of sticking our hands out to touch a great white and got a limb bitten off, it would mark the end of an entire shark-cage diving industry). Within ten minutes, we had a monster great white chomping on our cage within inches of Chris’s face.
Monkeyland and Birds of Eden (near Plettenburg):
One thing Selftours included in our package, which we didn’t think would be all that great but actually turned out to be a highlight of our trip, was free passes to two animal sanctuaries called Monkeyland and Birds of Eden.
Located close to the famously stunning beaches of Plettenburg Bay, Monkeyland is an open-air sanctuary for monkeys, meaning none were confined to the bars of a zoo cage. All of the monkeys are rescues from dire situations, whether due to disease, injury or predators. From the start we were told we couldn’t take food or drink with us, and it quickly became apparent why. Within 30 seconds of setting off into the heart of Monkeyland, we were surrounded by no fewer than 20 monkeys and lemurs (the latter technically not monkeys, but welcomed at Monkeyland nonetheless and every bit as adorable). We were assigned a guide as we walked around – mandatory here and part of the entrance fee – who knew every last thing there was to know about primates and could tell us the names of nearly all the hundreds of monkeys and lemurs, how they came to Monkeyland and even who they might be dating.
Birds of Eden (next to Monkeyland) was a similar sanctuary but for birds and was also a treat. We didn’t have a guide for this one, but instead just walked around at our own pace and gazed at some of the world’s most beautiful, colorful birds, trying to get pictures of them before they fluttered away. It proved a difficult feat since most were in the shadows, so it was hard to get a good, fast shutter speed even after cranking my ISO up (and I’m so anti-flash that using it isn’t an option in my book).
Canga Wildlife Ranch
The next day we headed northwest to a charming little town called Oudtshoorn and a necessary stop on any Garden Route trek through the Western Cape. Not only was the drive absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful (this coming from a native Coloradan who now lives in Oregon – my standards for beautiful drives are high), but we preceded some delicious home-style Malay cooking at a restaurant called Nostalgie (I’ve since learned this place has a well-deserved No. 1 spot on TripAdvisor) with a day at Canga Wildlife Ranch. Because two days before, we hadn’t quite had enough of lowering ourselves into waters filled with nature’s most dangerous predators. This time we swam with crocodiles from the comfort of a cage.
We took a walk through the rest of the park and saw animals such as bats, snakes, lions, leopards, tigers and lemurs. It’s in a zoo-like setting so if you’re not looking to swim with the crocs, I wouldn’t recommend it over some of the more up-close open-air encounters you can get, for example on a game drive in South Africa, but Oudtshoorn itself is well worth a stop regardless. And as I mentioned, the drive is unbeatable.
Two Oceans Aquarium
Back in Cape Town for a few days, we scheduled a dive at the Two Oceans Aquarium right on the V&A Waterfront. The aquarium was filled with enormous fish (yellowtail rockcods, santers, geelbeks, brindle bass and the lovably ugly black and white musselcrackers), eagle rays, blue stingrays, ragged-tooth (white-tip reef) sharks and a 300-lb loggerhead turtle that had a thing for me. At one point during our dive I felt a nudge at my back and, thinking it was Chris, turned around to see what he wanted. Instead, it was our turtle friend, wedging me between her and a rock (it’s hard to tell from the video, but I could feel the weight of her on my back) and attempting to chomp on my delicious weight belt. I was very relieved when Chris and our divemaster came to my rescue.
The price of our dive, which was actually reasonable in diving terms, also included entrance to the rest of the aquarium. It’s impressive, somewhat surprisingly given that it’s not considered one of the main highlights of a trip to Cape Town.
The Humans of South Africa
That last animal species that impressed me in South Africa were the somewhat more familiar homo-sapiens. The people of Cape Town and the Western Cape in general were some of the friendliest, most welcoming people I’ve met. From Pat and her husband and sons, owner of Sonnekus Guesthouse (well worth a stay) to the waitress at my favorite restaurant in St. James (the name of whom and which I unfortunately have forgotten) and of course Faldela (see my previous Cape Town post) as well as the Congolese security guard who walked me home when I couldn’t find a cab and all the random strangers I encountered throughout my travels there, I only met friendly people and smiling faces. I can’t recall a single person who wasn’t pleasant to meet and deal with in my entire month there.
South Africa is one of my favorite destinations and well worth a visit. Feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like any recommendations.